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Thursday, February 21, 2002
Writer: Alison McGaughey

Richard Babcock

Chicago Magazine Editor: Seven Steps to Good Feature Writing

What makes a good feature story?
According to Richard Babcock, editor of Chicago Magazine, good features stories should include humor, live spots of action, and lots of quotes — or none of the above.

Photo, right: Richard Babcock speaks at Knox College. Download publication photo.

Babcock, editor of Chicago Magazine, spoke to aspiring writers at Knox College on Tuesday, Feb. 19, in Alumni Room, Old Main. He provided tips on what makes a good feature story and read excerpts from articles in his magazine. Babcock also offered other career advice and answered questions from students about their own writing.

Babcock has been the editor-in-chief of Chicago Magazine for the past ten years and before that was a senior editor at New York Magazine. He also has served as a judge for the National Magazine Awards competition. Chicago Magazine is the nation's oldest and largest city monthly publication.

In a fast-paced MTV world where there are countless "assaults on peoples' attention," Babcock said, feature writing has to grab the reader's attention and draw them in to the story. Good storytelling and attention to detail is at the heart of feature writing, he said.

He offered seven specific pointers — the last of which was "ignore all of the above if it makes the story better."

According to Babcock, every good feature story needs a "nut graph:" a paragraph near the beginning of the story that "tells what it's about and why anyone should care." After an intriguing lead that grabs the reader's attention, the "nut graph" ends with "a few graceful sentences telling you the point."

Even though feature stories are not about breaking news, Babcock said writers should remember that "the more facts, the better." He said writers must become immersed in — even obsessed with — their subjects, citing Tom Wolfe as a writer with a "voracious eye for detail" who pioneered a distinctive style of journalism.

"It's almost impossible to know too much about a story," he said. "Whenever I assign a story, that writer should become the world's expert on the topic, and I'm not really kidding. A little bit of obsession is a good thing."

Babcock also told the aspiring journalists to use direct scenes of action to tell a story and provide voices through quotes. He said journalists will often turn in a manuscript "woefully lacking in quotes."

Another bit of advice from Babcock was to "go for humor." Even though an article may be serious in nature, "being funny is vastly underrated in good writing," he said. "A serious article gains immeasurably by well-placed wit. It demonstrates the writer's confidence and comforts the reader." He said some of the greatest American writers "from Mark Twain to ... ("New Yorker" staff writer) writer Susan Orlean" have injected well-placed humor in their writing, no matter the subject.

However, Babcock also said conventional rules of writing should be broken if doing so will make the writing stronger. Joan Didion's "The White Album," one of the greatest works of contemporary non-fiction, he said, "jumbles ideas and chronology, but is still effective."

The lecture was sponsored by the Knox College Journalism Program. Babcock is one of a series of nationally-known journalists visiting Knox College this school year.

Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 47 states and 42 nations. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.


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